Remember the three men from Turkey

MAY 21 — It was nearly 10pm in windy Queenstown, and my wife and I were looking for some late-night nosh. 

Being New Zealand, most shops were long closed by then except for some pubs... and one kebab shop along Mall Street.

The moment we went in, I straight away gave thanks to the owner for being the saviour of my tummy. As he grilled a fat roll of doner kebab, I noticed his TV was showing a Turkish news channel.

I immediately blurted: “What do you think of the Turkish referendum?” 

Sensing my wife’s embarrassment at such a heavy question at such a time to a stranger I just met, I added for good measure: “I’m a journalist.” As if that made the question less awkward.

“I voted ‘yes’,” the kebab man answered. 

Why? I asked. “Because ‘no’ is for other people. The outsiders, the West, the Americans. We’re Turkish and we fully support Erdogan,” he said confidently. 

He grinned at me, and I felt slightly sheepish that I was that outsider who would disagree with him.

Not wishing to debate Islamist politics with this pleasant man who delivered me my scrumptious salvation, we chatted instead about Malaysia before I left the shop giddily with two rolls of kebab. His name was Mustafa.

That was just over a week after a constitutional referendum on April 16 that saw the vote for “yes” in support of 18 amendments proposed by governing Justice and Development Party, by a razor thin vote of 51.4 per cent against 48.6 per cent “no.”

With the mandate given by the Turks, slim as it may be, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may well be emboldened, even before the implementation of the amendments that would inevitably grant him more powers and push Turkey towards autocracy.

And this confidence may have empowered Erdogan to the point of flexing his muscles overseas.

In the last week, violence erupted during Erdogan’s visit to Washington, when several men in suits brutally attacked pro-Kurdish protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence. Nine people were hurt in the brawl.

Washington police said the attackers were members of Erdogan’s security detail. This was confirmed by Turkish state news agency Anadolu itself, who claimed that the police did not heed Turkey’s demands for it to intervene so the guards moved in to “disperse” the protesters.

Except there was a reason why the police did not intervene: the protest was perfectly legal.

On Thursday, a video showed that Erdogan himself was watching the brawl from the residence. And the brawl started after a man appeared to receive instruction from the president.

Diplomatic immunity will probably hinder any investigation into the brawl but the incident would probably have sparked a strong rebuke from the White House had Erdogan not been there for a state visit, or US president Donald Trump was not distracted by the Russia scandal.

Closer to home, three Turks were deported last week under suspicious circumstances that many did not pay attention to.

Earlier this month, Ipoh-based school principal Turgay Karaman was abducted by five men just before he was due to testify as a witness in a criminal case. The men had forced Turgay into a car. They were brazenly caught on CCTV.

On the same day, Ihsan Aslan was reported missing by his wife just hours after Turgay was abducted. 

That criminal case? It had involved visiting Turkish academic Ismet Ozcelik who had been charged for allegedly obstructing Immigration Department officers from carrying out their duty. The officers had in December come to Ismet’s son’s house, and tried to take away Ismet’s passport.

The three men were finally deported to Ankara, even though some of their family members are still here. Even though Ismet has been granted refugee status which means he has a choice where he can go to. But why? Here is where conflicting reports have appeared.

The police admitted that Turgay and Ihsan were not taken by abductors, but police officers instead. 

Initially, it was suggested that the trio were arrested on suspicion they had links to jihadist group Islamic State, and were arrested under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 which allows for detention without trial.

Finally the truth came out bit by bit, as more details were revealed. The reason the three were deported was that their travel documents had been cancelled... by the Turkish government. Which then made their presence here illegal, as far as Malaysia was concerned.

Why were their documents cancelled? According to the police, this was because the trio were wanted by Turkish authorities for involvement with a terror group.

But it was not the Islamic State. It was a group dubbed Gülenist Terror Organisation, or FETO.

And here is the kicker. FETO is not even a jihadist group. And it is only recognised as a terror group by Turkey and the Organisation of Islamic Countries, of which Malaysia is a member. 

You may know FETO by another name: the Gülen movement. This is the Islamic and social movement led by exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen.

Long hunted and persecuted by Ankara, Gülen has now been accused of masterminding the failed July 2016 coup. Since then, Erdogan’s administration has undergone a massive purge against suspected Gülenists, even among academics. And it seems this crackdown has reached our shores.

This apparent injustice did not stop with the deportation. On Friday, Ismet’s case was still called by the magistrate’s court. Not only that, the charge against Ismet was suddenly changed to using criminal force instead. 

“This is a totally different charge. In other words, the original charge upon which Ismet was detained is false,” said lawyer Rosli Dahlan, who represented Ismet. His team of lawyers will now file an application to strike out the charge, and ask for acquittal and the return of bail.

When controversial televangelist Dr Zakir Naik was declared wanted by the Indian government, for suspected links to Islamic State and alleged money laundering no less, there was an uproar over the possibility that he may face injustice from the so-called Hindu-majority government there and therefore must be protected and defended here.

It seems unlikely we will see such concerns when it comes to these Turks, even when there seems to be injustice against fellow Muslims too. Albeit this time, from a Muslim-majority government.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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